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New evidence indicates that Neanderthals were able to trigger fires



Neanderthals regularly use fire, but archaeologists are not sure if these extinct hominins were able to fire themselves, or if they had their flames sourced from natural sources. New geochemical evidence suggests that Neanderthals actually had the cultural ability to trigger their own paleolithic barbecues.

I have to admit that I got lost in the wild and had to light a fire without a lighter or fire. Game, well, to say for sure it would be a very cold night. In fact, the ability to summon flames still seems to me to be a magical limit – so imagine what the ability to start a fire from scratch must have meant to early humans.

At some point, our ancestors used the power of the flame to keep themselves warm, cook food, produce new materials, scare off predators, and illuminate dark caves. And of course, it offered a classic social environment, the campfire circle.

Archaeological evidence suggests that hominins of various species used fire as early as 1

.5 million years ago, but no one really knows how they obtained this fire. This paradigmatic ability to intentionally launch and control the fire is known as pyrotechnics and is traditionally considered the exclusive domain of our species, Homo sapiens .

But as new evidence submitted this week in Scientific Reports suggests that Neanderthals had the ability to trigger their own fires. Based on hydrocarbon and isotope evidence, researchers from the University of Connecticut were able to show that certain fire-bearing Neanderthals had poor access to forest fires. Therefore, they could only reach them by starting themselves.

"It was believed that fire was the domain of Homo sapiens but now we know that other old people like Neanderthals could do it," said Daniel Adler, co-author of the new study and associate professor for Anthropology at the University of Connecticut, in a press release. "So maybe we are not so special."

We know that Neanderthals and other hominins used fire based on archaeological evidence, such as the remains of hearths and charred animal bones. However, there are references which prove that Neanderthals possessed the necessary materials for igniting fires, namely manganese dioxide blocks (scrapers made of this material can support fire production since it can be ignited at lower temperatures compared to other materials ). That is, competing evidence from France has linked the use of Neanderthals to warmer periods in which forests are combustible with dense material and the likelihood of lightning strikes is higher – important factors in determining the likelihood of forest fires , This and other evidence was used to assert that Neanderthals were not pyrotechnic, as it was easy for them to catch flames from burning bushes.

For the new study, Adler and his colleagues sought to validate this hypothesis to determine whether Neanderthal fire use can actually be correlated with the occurrence of natural forest fires.

A critical component of this research is a molecule called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). The burning of organic matter releases PAHs that can provide records of fires over geological periods. They also come in two variants: light and heavy. The lightweight, lPAHs, can travel long distances while the heavy, hPAHs remain localized. For the study, researchers analyzed lPHAs found in Lusakert Cave 1 in Armenia – a well-known Neanderthal Cave – as evidence of the use of fire and hPHAs found outside the cave as evidence of forest fires. The scientists also studied isotopic data from fossilized plants, especially wax on leaves, to determine what the climatic conditions of the time were.

A total of 18 sedimentary layers from the Lusakert Cave 1 were analyzed, covering a period of 60,000 to 40,000 years. The hHPAs in these layers, along with other archaeological data, indicated that Neanderthals were burning heavily in this cave. However, during the same period forest fires outside the cave were rare. Moreover, the isotope data did not indicate anything particularly uncommon in terms of fire-friendly environmental conditions such as excessive dryness. As a result, the authors rejected the hypothesis that Neanderthal fire is "based on its natural occurrence in the regional environment." If anything, the new evidence suggests that Neanderthals burn "habitually" in times of low forest fire frequency, "the authors wrote in the study.

Chemist and co-author Alex Brittingham described this in the press release as follows:" It appears that they were able to control fires beyond the natural availability of forest fires. "

A challenge for researchers was to accept all of this data and keep it within the same time frame.

" In In an archaeological context such as those found in the Lusakert Cave, we are forced to answer all questions in longer time periods, "Brittingham said in an email to Gizmodo." All the data we present in this publication is The climate of leaf waxes, fire data of PAHs or data on human occupation by lithics are averaged over time compare them to different identified stratigraphic layers. "

Of course, this study provides indirect evidence for Neanderthal pyrotechnics as opposed to direct evidence such as manganese dioxide blocks or other clues. More evidence is needed to get more argument, but these recent efforts are a good step in that direction.

Another possible limitation of this research is the possibility that the sediment materials moved over the years or were degraded or diluted by erosion processes.

"However, given the good conservation of other hydrocarbons at the site, we do not believe that this is a problem," Brittingham told Gizmodo.

That Neanderthals had the ability to trigger fires is not a big shock. These hominines showed the ability to abstract thinking, as evidenced by their cave paintings . They also forged tools and made their own glue so that they were quite creative and hardworking. In addition, they managed to maintain an impressive existence of 360,000 years in large parts of Eurasia. Ideas that they survived so long without being able to extinguish a fire, or that their extinction is in any way related to their lack of pyrotechnic ability, seem to be the more far-reaching conclusions.


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